Toronto: Mary Pickford's Legacy Takes Spotlight With New Award in Her Honor

Antoine Doyen
Mati Diop, who was photographed April 30 in Paris, says that being the first black female director to be accepted into Cannes’ competition lineup "was a rather odd experience for me because I approached it almost as somebody learning this, as an outsider. What I represent exceeds me and does not belong to me."

One hundred years after she co-founded United Artists, the festival — at its first-ever tribute gala — teams with MGM to honor the trailblazing star's push for equality by toasting French filmmaker Mati Diop.

Of all the iconic memorabilia decorating the hallways of MGM, home of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, perhaps none is more prescient than a framed piece of 100-year-old paper signed by the stockholders of United Artists — including actress Mary Pickford, whose real name, Gladys Louise Smith, appears on the prized document.

The company, founded in 1919 by Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks (Pickford's future husband), was revolutionary in providing a home for creators to distribute their own films. The document also points to the incredible power Pickford wielded as the most popular actress in the world — she was alternately known as the Girl With the Curls, America's Sweetheart and Queen of the Movies — and her determination to use her clout offscreen.

On Sept. 9, Pickford's legacy is taking the spotlight at the Toronto Film Festival when French director-actress-writer Mati Diop accepts the inaugural Mary Pickford Award, conceived by TIFF in partnership with MGM, which bought the remnants of UA in 2015. This year, MGM and Annapurna Pictures gave the company Pickford co-founded new life with the launch of United Artists Releasing, their joint distribution company. The festival's Tribute Gala will take place blocks away from Pickford's 1892 birthplace on University Avenue.

"I like to say that Mary Pickford has been disrupting Hollywood since 1919," says documentarian Cari Beauchamp, resident scholar at the Mary Pickford Foundation. "Women were much more prevalent then because the industry wasn't taken seriously. It wasn't until Wall Street entered the fray in the late '20s with talkies that women were pushed out. It would mean the world to her to know her name was still an inspiration to women."

Pickford's contributions to the business went far beyond United Artists. At the end of World War I, she came up with the idea for the Motion Picture Relief Fund to help actors in need. She used the leftover proceeds from war bonds she sold to help the organization, founded in 1921. And in 1927, she was among the 36 co-founders — and one of only three female members — of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (she won the second best actress Oscar for the 1929 hit Coquette). Pickford retired from acting in 1933 but continued to be a force in the industry and didn't sell her UA shares until 1956. She died at age 87 in Santa Monica in 1979.

"This new award represents the pride we have for the 100-year legacy of UA, but it also represents outstanding females who may not be completely known in the world arena," says Jonathan Glickman, president of MGM's motion picture group. "This isn't an award for the most successful female directors or actresses. It's about people who represent the desire to disrupt and who don't necessarily fit into a specific category. Mati Diop's work felt ideal."

Diop this year became the first female black director to have a film accepted into competition at Cannes, and her drama Atlantics went on to receive the festival's Grand Prix. Diop, whose father is from Senegal and mother is French, often visited Senegal as a child, and when it came time to shoot her first film, she returned there to make a documentary short about the harrowing, and often deadly, ocean journey that many young Senegalese people make in order to find a better life in Europe. Atlantics is a feature adaptation of that short.

"Mati Diop is a force and trailblazer, original and vibrant," says Joana Vicente, executive director and co-head of TIFF, which has pledged to improve gender parity. This year, 36 percent of the films in the overall lineup were directed, co-directed or created by women, up from 35 percent in 2018.

The Mary Pickford Award is another way to promote inclusion. "Mary probably never imagined that another 100 years would go by and things are so far from being fair," Vicente says. "How could you go from that to a century of very little room for women to really have that voice? I associate her with being a force of nature and how things should be."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.